A decade down the road, the coalition that revolutionized how Montanans think about public lands has refocused on its unfinished business.
Original and new members of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project gathered in Missoula last week to see where things stand on bringing more jobs, adding more wilderness and having more fun in their fringe of the Rocky Mountains. While many of the goals they set out back in 2005 have come about, others still await congressional action.
“What ties us together is our backyard and its natural resources,” said Addrien Marx, owner of Rovero’s Ace Hardware and Gas Station in Seeley Lake. “That’s what first piqued my interest. Without the timber, my store would not survive. Without the snowmobilers and the cross-country skiers and hunters – any segment of our community – my store would not be successful. I saw the financial benefit across the board if we worked together.”
The Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project was an informal agreement among loggers, ranchers, wilderness advocates, snowmobilers and others arrayed along the arc of mountains between Seeley Lake and Lincoln to work together for common goals. They identified places where everyone supported more timber cutting, more wilderness designation, more snowmobile trails and more habitat restoration, and agreed to support one another’s efforts to make change happen.
The resulting maps wound up in Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s proposed Forest Jobs and Recreation Act as one of three local timber-wilderness compromises. While that legislation remains unpassed, the timber portion turned into the Southwest Crown of the Continent Collaborative Project and became one of the nation’s first pilot projects under the Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program.
“They wanted $750,000 for restoration work, and instead they got $52 million just for Southwest Crown injected into the local economy,” said Zack Porter of the Montana Wilderness Association. “We thought that was an ambitious goal, to beat that by that much was a huge success. We’ve been able to restore 105 miles of streambed, treat 43,000 acres of noxious weeds, provide 48.6 million board feet of timber for local mills, and restore a lot of high-quality fish and wildlife habitat.”
What hasn’t happened is consideration of the requested wilderness designations and recreation areas. The original agreement marked out 83,000 acres of additions to the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Mission Mountains wilderness areas, almost all of which were recommended for federal designation in the Lolo National Forest management plan for years. There were also agreements for places to be preserved for snowmobile access, mountain biking trails and other mixed use.
All nine commissioners from Missoula, Lewis and Clark, and Powell counties signed letters to Montana’s congressional delegation supporting the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project and asking them to push for the wilderness and recreation components.
“We are proud to reaffirm our endorsement for the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project and ask the Montana Delegation to sponsor and enact legislation to implement all components of the proposal,” wrote Powell County commissioners Ralph Mannix, Dan Sager and Doug Crachy. “This broadly supported proposal advances the interests of multiple and diverse stakeholder groups including wilderness additions to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas, designation of the Otatsy Recreation Area, and provisions that will advance recreational opportunities and increase the pace and scale of forest restoration on the Seeley Lake Ranger District."
Marx said it didn’t matter whether the project moved forward through Tester’s bill or something drafted by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., or U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., – all of whom had staff members involved in the updating process.
“There’s broad recognition that this is a successful, open process that has become what our residents want and our visitors want,” Marx said. “Now we want our delegation to find a way to push this across the president’s desk. It’s in their hands now.”